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Absinthe is a distilled, alcoholic beverage, sometimes referred to as "la fée verte" (the green fairy).

Absinthe was banned in many countries during the early 20th century:

  • 1906 - Brazil and Belgium,
  • 1909 - Netherlands,
  • 1910 - Switzerland,
  • 1912 - United States,
  • 1914 - France.

Wild claims about absinthe, that it 'caused epilepsy and tuberculosis and killed thousands of French people', as well as its reputation for being a psychoactive drug, kept it illegal for close to 100 years, even after countries repealed their prohibitions of other alcoholic drinks.

Other than the claims made by the pro-temperance movement and producers of competing alcoholic drinks (such as wine), what evidence is there that absinthe is sufficiently different from, or more dangerous than other liquors that it is still banned in some areas and tends to be more highly regulated than other liquors?

Is there any merit to the claims that thujone acts as a hallucinogen and can cause death when ingested by drinking absinthe?

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3  
Absinthe is much higher in alcohol content than most liquors available, and as I understand it if you try to drink enough to get psychoactive properties the alcohol will kill you. –  David Thornley Mar 31 '11 at 23:38
1  
It's worth noting that while absinthe does indeed have a much higher alcohol content, by far the most popular way of drinking it involves watering it down to a fraction of its strength. –  Beofett Feb 8 '13 at 16:03

4 Answers 4

up vote 12 down vote accepted

A world expert on the chemistry of Absinthe is Chemist Ted Breaux and there is no shortage of interviews with him going back a decade or more. Wired and Absinthe Buyers Guide have a pair of good ones. He has published peer-reviewed papers on the topic.

Abstract

Thirteen samples of authentic absinthe dating from the preban era (i.e., prior to 1915) were analyzed for parameters that were hypothesized as contributing to the toxicity of the spirit, including naturally occurring herbal essences (thujone, pinocamphone, fenchone), methanol, higher alcohols, copper, and antimony. The total thujone content of preban absinthe was found to range between 0.5 and 48.3 mg/L, with an average concentration of 25.4 20.3 mg/L and a median concentration of 33.3 mg/L. The authors conclude that the thujone concentration of preban absinthe was generally overestimated in the past. The analysis of postban (1915–1988) and modern commercial absinthes (2003–2006) showed that the encompassed thujone ranges of all absinthes are quite similar, disproving the supposition that a fundamental difference exists between preban and modern absinthes manufactured according to historical recipes. Analyses of pinocamphone, fenchone, base spirits, copper, and antimony were inconspicuous. All things considered, nothing besides ethanol was found in the absinthes that was able to explain the syndrome “absinthism”.

From an interview:

Breaux discounts the popular notion that thujone is absinthe's only -- or even primary -- active ingredient. (See sidebar: "The Thujone Connection"). "There's a lot more to absinthium, the herb, than thujone," he says. "There are a lot of things in it that hardly anyone had studied."

Personally, I find that a quality absinthe prepared correctly with ice-cold water and raw sugar is an amazing drink. As refreshing as a mint julep but with a bit more kick. But I've never experienced any hallucinogenic effects from it.

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The short answer, regarding hallucinations is no. Here is a study done regarding the chemical composition of absinthe. And here's one on thujone specifically, indicating that its convulsive properties are dose-dependent, and showing that in Absinthe, sufficient quantities of thujone are not present to demonstrate either hallucinogenic or convulsive properties.

Absinthe was determined not be associated with a significant risk of thujone-related seizure activity because analysis shows the lower limit for a benchmark response of 10% was found to be 0.11mg/kg of body weight which is not reachable by consumption of thujone containing foods and beverages.

A questioning of Magnan's findings (which started all the controversy) regarding convulsant properties is here.

And another study, specifically relating to the relationship between VanGogh and Absinthe is here.

In the end, it appears that all of the effects of Absinthe can be attributed to its alcohol content. Check here for a 2008 study done on both pre-and post ban Absinthe.

If needed, I can provide more links to other studies which confirm this finding, to oppose the anecdotal claims and various apocryphal stories of people claiming to have hallucinated while consuming it.

Regarding the question of death, it would depend on the amount ingested. This would of course be no different from any other beverage with comparable alcohol content.

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Thujone is known to be a convulsant

http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jf001445%2B

http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/tx000242c

http://www.pnas.org/content/97/9/4417.full.pdf+html

The pertinent portion:

Thujone, like picrotoxin, is excitatory on the brain(analeptic). Such an agent may produce mood elevation and antidepressant effects. One may note the anxiogenic and possibly alerting effect of GABA antagonists, as opposed to the anxiolytic, sedative, but also amnestic effects of GABAenhancing drugs like benzodiazepines and ethanol (9, 10, 23). Do not forget, however, that in absinthe one is balancing the effect of thujone with the intoxicating, disinhibitory, and depressant effects of ethanol, not to mention those of the other herbal ingredients of oil of wormwood and others added to the myriad recipes for absinthe now in existence."

The EU did made a report in '02 regarding the presence of Thujone in foods in the EU, which can be found here: http://ec.europa.eu/food/fs/sc/scf/out162_en.pdf

They make a note of anecdotal studies regarding thujone related deaths, but I haven't delved much deeper at the present. It's nearly 1am and I'm turning into a pumpkin.

Personally, I think it could happen; one person drunk on absinthe + a thujone induced seizure....

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Anyone who has sampled the liquor Pernod has a good idea that absinthe got its reputation from its remarkably high alcohol content rather than any psychedelic in the oil of wormwood extract that distinguishes Pernod from absinthe. This article from Science Daily explains:

A high alcohol content, rather than thujone, the compound widely believed responsible for absinthe's effects. Although consumed diluted with water, absinthe contained about 70 percent alcohol, giving it a 140-proof wallop. Most gin, vodka, and whiskey are 80 -- 100-proof and contain 40-50 percent alcohol or ethanol.

Pernod - which is perfectly legal is, in fact, simply absinthe without the wormwood and, apparently, a lower alcohol content:

Pernod is actually a successor of absinthe, the potent liquor that contained a toxic oil from wormwood in quantities that were thought to cause brain damage — and which was outlawed in 1915 in France. One of absinthe's leading manufacturers, Henri Pernod, then focused its efforts on the lower-alcohol, wormwoodless, anise-flavored Pernod.

This site offers this information on the Pernod - absinthe connection:

• The original Pernod consisted of 65-75% alcohol and the notorious hallucinogen, absinthe “Arthemisia Absinthium,” which gave Pernod a distinct reputation around the world.

• After the imposition of a French ban on wormwood due to its hallucinogenic effects in 1915, the absinthe formula was modified, resulting in Pernod as we know it today – a 40% alcohol (80 proof) anise-flavored spirit. Its distinctive flavor is created through a combination of star anise and several aromatic herbs and plants.

This site allows a comparison with conventional liquors:

Liqueur 15–55% Light Liquors 20% Liquor/Spirits (general) 40% Cask Strength Whisky/Rum 60% Absinthe 55–89.5% Neutral Grain Spirit 95% Rectified Spirit 96% Absolute Alcohol 99-100%

At the upper limit of 89.5% a person would essentially be drinking "torpedo juice", which could certainly explain the reputation that absinthe earned.

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